Two Thoughts on Today's Education Summit

Today the American Federation for Children and The 74 held an education summit in New Hampshire for GOP candidates. I haven’t read any commentary yet that’s longer than 140 characters, but my sense is that the  six participating Republican candidates spoke knowledgeably and passionately about pertinent issues. Oh, there were a few face-plant moments -- John Kasich suggesting the elimination of teacher lounges; Chris Christie claiming that the Common Core “didn’t work” and that’s why he flip-flopped (um, it’s working just fine); Carly Fiorina stumbling over state spending numbers -- but it was thrilling to listen to such substantive and granular discussion (even, in my case, remotely). These six candidates -- the others were Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Bobby Jindal -- are more moderate Republicans so maybe it’s not surprising that there was civil consensus on the need for higher student standards (whether those are state-mandated or locally-mandated is a matter of debate), school choice, and accountability.

Two thoughts:

First, it’s stunning how much the presence of The Donald dumbs down conversation. Certainly, this was a different venue and structure than the recent FOX debate. Candidates sat one-on-one for forty-five minutes with tough, tireless, and smart Campbell Brown, instead of lining up side by side for thirty-second soundbites with the likes of Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul. This was a seminar, not a sideshow.

Second, let’s try  a thought experiment. Maintain the line-up of today’s candidates and add in the most likely Democrats: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and, oh heck, why not, Joe Biden. What would happen?

I think you’d still have consensus on higher standards, school choice, and accountability.

Think about it. Clinton is on record supporting No Child Left Behind (albeit with concerns about micromanagement), the Common Core State Standards, and charter schools. Joe Biden also supports all three issues.  Bernie Sanders is a cipher but he’ll flame out in N.H. and Iowa. O’Malley supports school choice, common standards, and accountability.

In other words, these six Republican and four Democratic presidential hopefuls mostly agree on  hot-button education issues. Sure, there’s discord on vouchers and, more crucially, the role of the federal government in state and local matters, but the large provinces of agreement swamp the small wedges of dissent.

And that’s as it should be. The EducationNext poll that came out this week found that 67% of the public supports annual testing, 59% oppose the opt-out movement, 65% support the Common Core, and 51% support charter schools. Our leaders represent us! How refreshing.

The elephant(s) in the room, of course, is teacher union leaders, who came under sharp attack today, often positioned as the primary impediment to change.  One of the challenges for candidates during the Democratic education  summit in October will be to honor our teachers while also acknowledging the needs and desires  of public school children and their families.

It will  take a strong Democratic candidate  to suggest the AFT and NEA leaders’ positions on school choice and accountability (the Common Core is a moving target) diverge from public consensus. I hope that Democrat shows up in October and talks to Campbell Brown.

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